Cade Cunningham and Franz Wagner are giving the Eastern Conference’s bottom two teams reasons for optimism.
The Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic have seven victories apiece this season, but they also have two of the NBA’s top rookies. Detroit took Cunningham No. 1 overall in last year’s draft, and the former Oklahoma State star has impressed with his all-around contributions. Wagner went to the Magic at No. 8. The Michigan product leads all rookies, averaging 15.9 points per game.
In fact, four of the game’s top newcomers reside in the East. Evan Mobley of Cleveland and Scottie Barnes of Toronto are ranked 1–2 among rookies in rebounds per game.
“It seems like a strong group,” said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, whose team allowed 38 points to Wagner last Tuesday. “We’ve played Cleveland multiple times and talked about Mobley and what a big impact he’s having on the game. The game Wagner had the other night was about as impressive as I’ve seen from a rookie in a long time. Cunningham, as a first pick, is somebody who’s kind of been in and out, and I think the second time we played him he was a lot better. Tonight we get to learn more and see more.”
Budenholzer made those comments prior to Monday night’s clash between the Bucks and Pistons. Detroit upset the defending champs behind 19 points and seven assists from Cunningham. The rookie guard did have five turnovers, something that’s been an issue for him.
“It’s about where rookie point guards usually are, in that situation,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s like a rookie quarterback in football. It’s tough. But that’s what this year is all about, is him growing.”
Cunningham is averaging 15.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists, although his arrival hasn’t helped Detroit’s record much. Mobley, on the other hand, is part of a resurgence in Cleveland. The Cavaliers, who went 22–50 last season, are 21–16 now.
Mobley, the third pick in the draft out of Southern California, is averaging 14.7 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 50.1 percent from the field.
“His ability and poise with the ball, he just never gets sped up,” said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, whose team lost to Cleveland on Sunday night, thanks in part to Mobley’s 24 points and nine rebounds. “I marvel at his skills at such a young age.”
Barnes was the fourth pick in the draft out of Florida State. He is averaging 15.5 points and 8.1 rebounds.
“He’s just got good energy and passion to play, and I think there’s a real youthful enthusiasm that shows itself sometimes when we need it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said recently. “He gets the lone starter on the floor with some second-unit guys and you can see him raise his level of, ‘Come on, let’s go. I’m gonna run, I’m gonna block some shots. Let’s do this and let’s have some fun out here.’ And I think that’s been fun to watch.”
Wagner, a big contributor on both offense and defense in college, has been quite an addition for the Magic, who could use a few bright spots to distract from their league-worst 7–31 record. Wagner is one of three ex-Michigan players with Orlando, along with his older brother Moe and Iggy Brazdeikis.
Wagner has played in all 38 of his team’s games this season. Other rookies haven’t been as fortunate. Cunningham, Barnes, and Mobley have all spent time in health and safety protocols. Earlier this season, Mobley missed four games with an elbow injury, and Cleveland lost them all.
“At his age, and his level of experience, his intellect far outweighs what you see,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “Not only is he extremely bright, he picks up things quickly and he can pick them up in the moment.”
It’s clear how valuable this quartet is. Barnes, Mobley, Cunningham, and Wagner are the top four rookies in the league in minutes per game. Each game feels like a chance to keep improving—even if a couple of them haven’t won many games so far in their young careers.
“Overall, the group of rookies has been impressive so far,” Budenholzer said. “It’s good for our league.”
By Noah Trister